Lawmakers study tax breaks as rural communities face lowering digests

Lawmakers study tax breaks as rural communities face lowering digests
(Source: WALB)
(Source: WALB)
(Source: WALB)
(Source: WALB)
(Source: WALB)
(Source: WALB)
(Source: WALB)

DOUGHERTY CO., GA (WALB) - The total amount of tax exempt properties in Dougherty County has grown by more than $22 million from fiscal year 2016 to fiscal year 2017, up 5%, as more groups have gained full or partial tax exemptions across the state.

Now, state lawmakers are taking a close look at tax breaks. Their results could directly impact the future of Dougherty County, a community already preparing for a possible tax digest shortfall after the storms.

"It is a difficult and complicated issue. I know that our State Senate is looking at the issue of exemptions," said Chris Cohilas, Dougherty County's Commission Chairman.

Dougherty leaders are preparing for the very real prospect of losing a chunk of its tax digest next year when tax-generating properties are reassessed, and possibly devalued, after multiple devastating storms.

Cohilas thinks the total cost of the damage from the storms across the board is more than $2 billion.

Dougherty County's Chairman said the tax revenue money is needed to improve infrastructure, which makes Dougherty County more attractive for new and expanding businesses, improving economic development opportunities.

"Overall the revenue problem is challenging. On one hand, you have a bunch of exempt properties, and that is a political creature. Because, over the years more and more groups have gotten the ability to be tax exempt," said Cohilas.

Full and partial exemptions include crops like pecans and fruit trees, construction equipment for highway contractors and community hospital buildings and land, according to information provided by the county's tax assessor.

In Dougherty County, the far biggest share of tax-exempt property, $300 million worth of the total $435 million of exempt property, is listed as public property.

Public property includes city, county, and state-owned properties.

The next largest sum total of tax-exempt property equals $75 million listed as owned by 'Charity Hospitals'.

'Places of Religious Worship' amount to $31 million, the third largest group.

"I am not picking on one group. Every group has its worthiness and merit. And, often times, they provide services to our community that are very important," said Cohilas. "I think that our state leaders and our national leaders really have to continue to look at these issues and see what tools they can provide the local government so they can achieve the revenue they need to be able to utilize and provide the best streets, roads and educational opportunities for its citizens."

Dougherty County's Chief Tax Assessor, Bill Ashberry, told commissioners that when voters elect whether or not to okay a new tax exemption on the ballot, the proposed amendment is worded in a way that "doesn't express the full impact on the taxpayer."

Ashberry said the real question to consider is not whether you think that group is worthy of a tax break but "are you (the taxpayer) willing to pay their share of their taxes?"

Right now, Dougherty County's Tax Assessor office has a dedicated employee who reviews the exemption status of all properties.

According to data provided by Ashberry, the total number of tax exempt properties in Dougherty County is 4,785.

In Fiscal Year 2017, $5 million in property moved from exempt to taxable. Many of these properties appear to be owned by religious institutions.

In the same year, $9.3 million in property was taxable, but moved to tax exempt status.

We know of one tax-exempt institution, Phoebe Health System, that makes a voluntary payment to the county in lieu of property taxes.

In the coming fiscal year, they expect to pay $867,000.

On Tuesday, the Senate Special Tax Exemption Committee will meet for the first time. A report is expected on December 1 and could include recommendations for changes to state law exemptions.

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